Interview with Surface Designer Robin Sprong: Unleashing a wild animal in design

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Robin, tell us about your background?

I studied as a photographer and designer and learned to work with all the software programmes, with Photoshop, Illustrator as well as freehand and photography. But before that, I started off as a military diver in the South African Navy. My time in the military was really valuable and I still stay in contact with all of my old mates.

When I travel now they see on my social (media) stuff and they hook me up and I spend a lot of time with them and there is still a strong bond with these guys. We did the first wallpaper on a 100% solar powered on a houseboat on one of the Thames river barges and the guy leading the project was a navy diver. After leaving the military, many become commercial divers and many get into boating and are literally spread all over the world. 
What did you learn from your time in the military you put to good use now?
In the military, you learn leadership skills. You join when you are 18 years old and you are very wet behind the ears but you learn how to survive pretty quickly and these skills are life-changing.

After I left the military, I worked for Lomography in Vienna and London and always wanted to be a photographer and became the ambassador for them (they make low-end analogue camera equipment) I then started a gallery in Cape Town called Exposure Gallery to help promote the camera equipment and give young photographers a platform. However, Lomography were very strict with how they wanted everything to be run their way and kept trying to control us creatively. I suppose we then began getting a reputation for being rogues as we wanted to express our creativity and this made things a little tense and probably led to me branching out on my own.

How were you introduced to digital printing?

I am from Cape Town in South Africa, and the business is located here. Due to the spectacular background of Table Mountain, it is a highly photographed and a lot of top brands use the location for fashion shoots etc.  

As a result, photography is taken very seriously here. During this period, the analogue to digital shift was occurring. However, photography had status attached to it at this time and there was not a huge opportunity for young photographers to really get a break. So to address this we created Exposure Gallery for young people to show their work and in the same space, we sold photographic goods. Anything that had a photograph printed onto it, be it a chair or a lamp, it was cool and I started to see the creative potential of digital print. 

There was a company here called Grand Format Digital who were printing using Vutek and Mimaki. They were open with me so I could learn about the media and the technology. At about this time, digital wallpaper was beginning as people could see it was cheaper and slowly I got better at understanding what worked and what didn't. Around this time, I realised I didn't have enough content and then I used my own network with photographers and I bought up the licenses for the images and content for design. This was an important development and investment as having great content in this business is really important.

Then HP recognised our work at a show in Dubai, and we met Terry Raghunath. This was great, Terry and HP really helped us and we have managed to push boundaries and keep out in front. They were promoting the whole digital décor possibilities with their HP Latex machines and it was the right place and right time and through our link with HP, we have been building our relationships all over the world. Now we can work with customers anywhere without having to worry about international deliveries as with a global network of printers with the right HP kit has really helped us to globalise our business.

After this, I was introduced to Vincent Van Herk in the Netherlands who previously ran Faber Exposize. They supported us with a big stand at Dutch Design Week. We literally printed on everything and it gave us an extra boost and exposure. Vincent is very well connected with artists in the Netherlands which was awesome for us and we met a lot of inspiring people that helped to take the business forward.

It seems like you connected sequentially with the right people, how did you manage this?
I guess by being out there, being in the right places at the right time so we were able to get noticed. One of the things I know works for me is the fact I am a people person and I use it to my advantage. I am a communicator who loves travelling and being out there in the market and this has proven to help a lot.

 'Concrete - Crack' an in house Robin Sprong design

'Concrete - Crack' an in house Robin Sprong design

But really it is not only about me. What enables me to do this is the fact that I have a strong team at home who run a really efficient and innovative business. Whilst the business is in my name, everyone who works here is passionate and contributes greatly to our success. And I must grow the brand even more which means I will have to let go of certain things!

What is the one thing that sets the business aside as unique?

The quality of our design whether our blinds, wallpapers or furnishings. The design is the central thing allied to the high-quality team we have in place. We all trust each other and have a good working relationship but the design always comes first.

We simply love design and print. We work on new content all of the time as well as nurturing artists and developing the new and exciting connections that this gives us. 

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Our design inspiration comes from the artists that we work with and the trends we see. We need to make money so we look at what is trending. For example, trends that are big at the moment are botanical designs. So we bring a lot of these designs into play. As well as our need to be on trend (because commercially this is sensible) we also like to push boundaries. 

Give me an example of where you have pushed boundaries?

A couple of years ago we designed digitally printed concrete wallcoverings which people loved. This year we have designed a newer version with flowers which are faded into the concrete. This was a huge hit at Decorex (a show in the UK) and we already have some big orders for it and this is an example of why pushing the boundaries and getting noticed is really important. 

 Design by Kelly Cestarikce 

Design by Kelly Cestarikce 

But we work on a tight brief with customers who have very clear creative boundaries. For example, at the moment, we have several hotels we are working with and they will tell us what they want, the theme, Radisson Red or blue and we can work within their framework. Very rarely do we get people asking us to just print their artwork. Projects require creativity and adaptability. So, we offer either bespoke design or access to a wide range of designs available from our collections. 

What kind of people tend to be your customers? 

A lot are interior designers who specialise at what they are good at. They trust us at what we are good at and will ask us to get involved and collaborate.
What our customers want are our ideas. This is a crucial element to what they are looking for from us. Not just to choose a standard stock. My team has become very good at this, they can read the vibe and the process, and by doing they give the customers a great solution.

So being global is really important?

Yes whilst the local market is important, we rarely get people walk in off the street so a global customer base is really important. I have been doing a lot of traveling to represent our brand overseas and we are confident and able to supply and deliver the right design on many different surfaces. We can do splash-backs, vinyl covering, furnishings and wallcoverings in a lot of countries. Virtually any surface print is possible. The business works because we are surface designers and we're not trying to be anything else. The content we have is fantastic and our designers are really committed to doing their best.

How important is HP?

For me, the reason we use Latex is that it is environmentally friendly. We work in the same room as our machines and it is safe to do so. The print production is fantastic and our relationship with HP is a strong one and they help us network and solve problems internationally.

The key reason why HP is a great partner is that they are the guerrilla in the room, they have the scale and the monopoly and one of the founding fathers of Silicon Valley.

They are really nurturing their machines, and they have been supportive of us. We are fortunate to have a good relationship with the people at HP, they have an amazing team, and are all smart, good people.

But this strong partnership and being able to tap into this network doesn't necessarily mean we can't go somewhere else to work with other technology – but right now we are happy.

What is the secret of your success?

In one word, passion. We all love what we do, so being successful really is a by-product of this.

What about the future?

We want to expand into the US market in 2019. We have an association with a company there and I think we could be a great success there. But also we want to develop and nurture our international base and be able to have a consistent foreign income and see where it goes. I don't have a set financial goal. We love what we do we want to develop this, we all love it. I am like a wild animal, digital technology has let me off the leash and frankly, I like being out there and this I doubt will ever change.

Check out the Robin Sprong website here

 Design by Patricia Braune from the Botanics range

Design by Patricia Braune from the Botanics range